Harvard Students Reflect on COP28 

15 Harvard students, funded to attend COP28 in Dubai, reflect on their experiences.
Jan 19, 2024
By Christina Marie Strachn, Harvard College

The COP Student Observers Funding Program, supported by the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, funded 15 Harvard University students to attend COP28 in Dubai. The students represent a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, but all share an interest in learning about international climate negotiations and interacting with climate practitioners and leaders from around the world.

Students’ takeaways from COP28 ranged from puzzlement and concern over the future of climate action to optimism and relief. Interested in attending COP29 or hearing more about students’ experiences at the global conference? Join the Salata Institute and student COP28 attendees for a debrief event on Thursday, February 1 from 5 – 7PM!

Learn more and register here.

Abdullah Al-Sharkarchi, Harvard Business School

“As someone actively working in early stage climate tech, this presented great opportunities to meet thought leaders, policy makers, suppliers, and customers. Some of the best connections were serendipitous, sitting down at a lunch bench next to solar engineers who taught me about the necessity of tracking panels for Middle East projects or investors in South Asian two and three wheeler mobility companies that are working on similar technology to my startup. There’s value to the sheer scale and network effects of the event, amongst the 100k attendees I was surprised to find many of my friends and contacts in the climate space who are usually spread around the world present in one place and easy to catch up with.”

Harvard Business School students attending COP28 take a selfie in Dubai.
Dennis Cha, Harvard Business School:  

“COP28 drew more than 100,000 people in attendance, with over 100 pavilions at Expo City in Dubai. Not only was it very easy to get lost due to the size of the conference, but also I felt a bit scattered as a student who did not attend with organizational objectives (Prospekt Mira’s ask for me was “go and learn a lot,” which I’m very thankful of). Most policymakers, businesspeople, and climate advocates in attendance were there with very clear objectives, such as striking deals with other organizations, speaking on stages, and raising voices on issues they are passionate about. I was fortunate enough to make an intervention comment at a UN policy action session on EV charging, a subject I’m passionate about. For students attending COP in the future, I would encourage you to clearly define what you want to achieve through COP28 so that you don’t lose focus on what sessions to attend, whom to meet, and what to talk about.”

Sadok Kechaou, Harvard Business School

“…The pronounced presence and advocacy of youth and indigenous populations at COP28 were striking. Their energy, commitment, and clarity in messaging underscored the real human impact of climate change and the critical need for inclusive climate action. Their voices served as a powerful reminder to us, technologists, investors, and policymakers in the climate space, about why we picked our respective career paths in the first place.”

Grace Lam, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School 

“As a climate tech entrepreneur, being able to bring my startup, NetaCarbon, to COP was like a dream come true. My co-founder and I actively reached out for pitching and speaking opportunities at COP to broaden our exposure. In the end, we were granted the opportunity to pitch live at COP as one of the finalists of the IRENA NewGen Accelerator Program. I also spoke on a panel about women’s entrepreneurship and participated in another pitching event organized by Monash University. Looking back, I was proud that we optimized our schedule for events that maximized our presence and allowed us to form new relationships with people in the industry.”

Grace Lam, co-founder of NetaCarbon pitches live at COP as a finalist of the IRENA NewGen Accelerator Program.
Akshay Nambiar, Harvard Kennedy School

“I am grateful for the hands-on learning experience as a delegate at COP28. I have refined my career interests and realized the specifics of the story that I want to be part of when it comes to climate action. Looking aheads, the critical challenge lies in translating commitments into tangible actions. As the curtain fell on COP28 and the spectre of COP29 looms on the horizon, I eagerly look forward to the adoption of the New Collective Qualitative Goal (NCQG). This serves as a beacon of hope, poised to replace the $100 billion annual commitment. Moreover, I look forward to how the GST outcome is effectively taken on by the Azerbaijan and Brazil presidencies to ensure that international cooperation is catalyzed in upcoming NDCs.”

Madeleine Kline, Harvard Medical School

“One of the main reasons I wanted to go to COP28 was because it had the first ever thematic day centered around health. While I didn’t fully understand what a thematic day was prior to attending, it seemed to be a theme for the side event programming that day, as well as the health ministerial that brought health ministers together from all over the world. This day also sparked the Health Declaration, which was signed by many nations. While not formally a part of the negotiations, I do think this day had a large impact on my experience at COP. It brought the climate change and health community together as many experts attended from around the world and brought health ministers to COP28 as part of party delegations who may not have otherwise attended.” 

The Harvard global health delegation at COP28 poses for a photo at the Salata Institute event.
Lucas Peilert, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School

“My focus is on sustainable cities and transportation, and I decided to attend the COP because the US has a lot to learn from the rest of the world in this area–we have the world’s least sustainable transportation system, as measured by transportation emissions per capita. And even globally, transportation is on the wrong track: it’s the fastest-growing greenhouse gas emitting and energy consuming sector. There are certainly still major obstacles that we’ll need to overcome if we hope to decarbonize transportation, but the four jam-packed days I spent at COP28 gave me hope that the technology solutions we need are available today. The real challenge will come in creating the policies and business models that will enable their successful deployment.”

A view of the entrance to Expo City in Dubai, courtesy of Lucas Peilert.
Alisha Shaparia, Harvard Kennedy School

“My disillusionment with the UNFCCC apparatus having worked on COP26 has translated into skeptical optimism after working at COP28. It required setting realistic expectations and understanding the limitations of the COP as a signaling mechanism, not a forum for action. These signals are for markets, businesses and 196 countries but more importantly, shaped by them. The direction of causality runs bottom up, not top down. This makes it even more important to align the maximum number of actors and their incentives with the climate cause.”

Hugh Shirley, Harvard Medical School

“While COP28 was successful for a number of reasons, I wouldn’t list the inclusion of health as a thematic day amongst them. What we want is for human health to be central to the outcomes of international agreements and to be part of the metrics by which we assess how countries adhere to these agreements, and COP28 did not deliver in that regard. We did establish and operationalize a loss and damage fund, we did get fossil fuels mentioned in the text, we did get some mention of health in the global stock take, but there’s still a long way to go before we achieve what is necessary to ensure that health through decarbonization is achieved.”

Hugh Shirley (center) at COP28
Riad El Soufi, Harvard Graduate School of Design

“I think it’s very admirable what the COP team was able to accomplish for the UAE Consensus; however, my key takeaway is that we can not continue to rely on mostly government alone to help with decarbonization. I see here a much stronger and bigger role for the innovation sector to push on the implementation of decarbonization technologies and projects. I felt the weight of responsibility, knowing I would be joining an industrial decarbonization startup very soon. The world really needs us to push this forward and do it fast. Mostly, making technologies cost-effective to enable the swift transition to these new decarbonized pathway technologies in hard to abate sectors like manufacturing.”

Emily Tench, Harvard Kennedy School

“Leaving COP28, I was caught between fear and hope. The fear stems from witnessing a conference fraught with conflicts of interest, where the urgency for action seemed to be overshadowed by the mingling of the rich and powerful. I worry that the event has become more of a spectacle than a catalyst for change, with weak agreements that lack the teeth for real-world implementation. Yet the dedication of those leading the charge on adaptation efforts around the world renews my hope for meaningful change. These individuals prove that despite the challenges, there are those who are earnestly working towards a more sustainable future for all.”

Emily Tench attended an event titled “Cities’ Action on Climate and Health” in the UK Pavilion at COP28.
Cara Yu, Harvard College

“My time at COP28 was eye-opening; I was surprised by the extent of private sector involvement. While some viewed the private sector’s presence with skepticism, I saw it as a crucial moment of convergence between policy and practice. The green zone was a showcase of corporate innovation, where companies demonstrated emerging climate technologies and their contributions to mitigating climate change. The blue zone provided insights into various countries’ climate policies and projects. Amidst this backdrop, my role with my delegation, Citizens Climate International, provided a unique vantage point.”

Cara Yu (second from right) at COP28.
Cynthia Yue, Harvard Kennedy School

“COP28 gave me the chance to engage with youth and indigenous leaders, meet with interviewees for my Kennedy School Policy Analysis Exercise, and speak on behalf of our world’s youth during high-level meetings and events at COP28. However, from what I saw, in its current form, COP has a long way to go before it grows into what it was meant to be: a conference where we set ambitious targets and hold the world accountable for climate action. We need binding agreements with strong language and ambitious targets. We need more transparency when parties with conflicts of interest are in the room. We need meaningful yearlong inclusion and for decision-makers to listen to our demands, at both COP28 and in other processes such as Nationally Determined Contribution consultations.”

Angela Zhong, Harvard College

“I was also lucky enough to meet with the organizing team, professors, and professionals from every aspect of climate. Everyone was warm and excited to chat. I often feel that choosing to pursue a career in this area is unconventional among my peers, but there I found more role models than I could meet in a night.” 

Angela Zhong (center) at COP28